The time has come for us to make a statement and issue our demands. In response to this injunction we say: we will ask nothing. We will demand nothing. We will take, we will occupy. We have to learn not to tip toe through a space which ought by right to belong to everyone… We are determined that the struggle should spread. That is the condition in which the realization of our demands becomes possible.
— “Communique From the UCLA Occupation” (November 19, 2009)
We must begin by preventing the university from functioning. We must interrupt the normal flow of bodies and things and bring work and class to a halt. We will blockade, occupy, and take what’s ours. Rather than viewing such disruptions as obstacles to dialogue and mutual understanding, we see them as what we have to say, as how we are to be understood. This is the only meaningful position to take when crises lay bare the opposing interests at the foundation of society. Calls for unity are fundamentally empty. There is no common ground between those who uphold the status quo and those who seek to destroy it.
— “Communique From an Absent Future” (September, 2009)
There are many critiques that can be leveled at Occupy LA and generally the entire Occupy Wall Street movement, but one possibly trumps all the others: the failure, if not refusal, to learn from past movements and apply their lessons to the encampment.
Two years ago, students across the University of California and California State University systems began a campaign of building occupations and other militant actions in response to massive budget cuts and mismanagement of funds by their administrators. Five of the ten UC campuses saw buildings locked down or barricaded, as did several CSU campuses. Out of this movement came a plethora of blogs and pamphlets advocating, supporting, and teaching occupations.
What was immediately obvious to the students occupying buildings is two-fold: First, occupation stagnates if it is not constantly expanding and escalating. Second, demands do nothing to achieve victory and in fact are counterproductive.
We can see the importance of these lessons in their non-application at Occupy LA. After a week of occupying the City Hall lawn (err, sidewalk), we are no closer to accomplishing what we set out to change. Thus far, no attempts have been made to leave the lawn, and only events organized by other coalitions have managed to escalate our response to the crisis and draw occupiers away from the confines established by LAPD and the occupation leadership. Expansion and escalation even within the space has been prohibited; workshops need to be held, and more permanent community infrastructures need to be built. Our movement can only be successful if we continue to push its limits and innovate tactically.
Everyone may agree that expansion is necessary; escalation less likely. But this is something that is rooted in historical fact, and too much elaboration would be redundant and unnecessary. The question of demands, on the other hand, requires more explanation.
The fundamental logic of activism is as follows: A group of grievants issues a list of demands to a person in power. Naturally, if these grievances exist already, it is because the status quo benefits those in power. Thus, the person in power won’t immediately give in to the protesters and grant their demands. At least not at first, and not unless it is politically or economically more beneficial to grant the demands than it is to ignore or repress the protesters. So the job of the protesters is to change the equation in power’s cost-benefit analysis, and make it more costly in some way or other for the status quo to continue. This can be done peacefully (e.g. the Civil Rights Movement and moral highgrounding) or more violently (e.g. terrorism). In either case, the point is to convince the person in power that it is cheaper to give in than to continue the way it was before.
As we have often seen, the symbolic granting of demands doesn’t translate into actual changes in the material conditions of life. Several things may happen. Only some of demands may be granted, and these are chosen in such a way as to fracture the movement and cut off the radical flank. Often, statements may be made that demands were granted, but the person in power will back away from those promises (i.e. lie). Or, the demands may be coopted by those in power, either to pick up an electoral constituency, or to actually benefit those who were benefiting before. An example of the latter can be seen in the Fourteenth Amendment, which was intended to extend citizenship, due process, and equal protection to former slaves, but has had the greater effect of granting personhood to corporations. Usually, movements that are “successful” end with one or more of these scenarios.
Even if demands already seem like a waste of time, let’s take the analysis a step further. The very act of demanding actually reifies power. Think about it. By issuing demands to a person in power, you are telling that person, yourself, and society as a whole that you consider that power and the person wielding it to be legitimate and capable of granting the demands. In other words, by demanding things, you are accepting and validating their authority over you. For a movement that is supposedly “leaderless” and built upon antiauthoritarian principles to be, in essence, begging the upper 1% to act against their own interests and throw more crumbs down to the masses, is as futile as it is silly.
This point needs to be repeated. To issue any demands of the 1% and their agents is to accept that their position, power, and wealth are natural and necessary. Once this is established, we should take a look at what we are demanding. At a very basic level we are demanding that they have less authority, less power, and less money, and that they give us more of those things. The act of demanding contradicts the demands themselves, and the former wins out, every time. Getting permits—asking for permission—is no different.
Finally, if we are going to demand everything—total liberation—it is ultimately meaningless if it is not taken for ourselves. If it is granted to us, it can always be withdrawn, and this liberation will always have a caveat, a footnote reminding us that even in our liberation there is an authority over us. This could go for anything we could demand. If we do not expropriate, if we are given, it will never be something we have control over. If we take it, it is ours. Our liberation must be fought for, that is the only way it won’t be used against us for the benefit of Capital and the State.
It should be clear that the logic of demands must be stricken from our collective consciousness. We know what we must do, and we must do it. We cannot continue waiting for someone else to save us, to make changes for us. Instead, we must take and do. Rather than ask permission, we must decide our own fates. We must organize our communities, our schools, our workplaces, our families. We must grow beyond the limits of the sidewalk and into the streets, from City Hall into all the neighborhoods and suburbs of Los Angeles. This is the logic of revolution.